Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

The Leverett Letters: Correspondence of a South Carolina Family, 1851-1868

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

The Leverett Letters: Correspondence of a South Carolina Family, 1851-1868

Article excerpt

The Leverett Letters: Correspondence of a South Carolina Family, 1851-1868. Edited by Frances Wallace Taylor, Catherine Taylor Matthews, and J. Tracy Power. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. Pp 543. $49.95, cloth.)

The large volume of family letters from this period already published notwithstanding, The Leverett Letters makes a significant and productive contribution to our understanding of private and public affairs in South Carolina from antebellum times through Reconstruction. The Rev. Charles Edward Leverett left New England in 1831 to become principal of Beaufort College. He married Mary Bull Maxcy and became an Episcopal clergyman and planter. Having already adopted two nephews, they gave birth to eight children. The father gave firm and usually sage advice to his children, especially his sons, but the mother stands out as the parent with especially dogmatic ideas and strong feelings. When a Confederate general was commended for having "burst into tears" for allowing federal forces to land on James Island, the mother wrote: "Now, I want our Generals to fight, we can do the crying..." (p. 134). When her youngest son was learning how to relate to freed slaves turned employees, she advised: "our people ought to teach the Negroes. Don't read Job always-the Psalms are a great comfort..." (p. 415).

The parents corresponded with their four sons while in college, two in this country and two in Europe. They also wrote to three of their sons who served in the Confederate Army. The sons wrote home, both to their parents and sisters, and the sisters responded. In their letters they offered poignant expressions of the value of personal correspondence and even instructed each other in the art of letter writing. Their correspondence demonstrates that the writers were intelligent, well read, articulate, and connected.

Letters document student life, study in Europe, the operation of plantations, domestic life during the war, contemporary medical practice (one son became a physician and army surgeon), and the daily life of soldiers (another was a private and ordnance sergeant). All forthrightly express convictions, opinions, and attitudes and, at times, pontificate about them. The family was socially and religiously conservative, e.g. "...they were to have their contemptible dancing, Ma & myself would not hear to the children going" (p. 21).

While they admired the sacrifices and dedication to the war effort that some Southerners displayed, they held in contempt the self-interest and indifference of many others. The family's hatred for the enemy, put in bitter terms such as "... the odious and abominable Yankees ... that diabolical people..." (p. 368) almost shocks in contrast to the warmth and tenderness that they showed to each other and to their many friends and relatives (there being abundant coincidences between the latter two). One letter refers to a federal tax official as "that contemptible old scoundrel Brisbane" (p. 418). Beyond these references, however, they often wrote condescendingly of "crackers" for whom they felt disgust.

They stood in almost disbelief at the arrogant unreasonableness of the North and believed firmly in the South's righteous cause. …

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